GM Sings the Body Electric as Consumer Tastes Evolve

High oil prices and the push for cleaner energy are luring car buyers toward smaller, more efficient vehicles. Trouble is, these cars can have lower profit margins than larger sport utility vehicles and light trucks. General Motors is just going with it.

That’s one conclusion from Charging Ahead: When Customers Drive Sustainability , GM’s 2012 sustainability report, released last week. It expands on themes included in, for example, the company’s most recent 10-K filing .

Sustainability reports tend to go down better with a side of 10-K or other dish prepared for nutritional investor value. By convention, sustainability reports project current trends and corporate goals onto a glossy future. And, by convention, 10-K filings require disclosure of “risk factors” that might flatten tires on the road there. "In general, content in both key company reports should be complementary to each other, not necessarily exactly the same," said David Tulauskas, director of sustainability, in an email.

The cover image for GM’s sustainability report features smiling people of different ages and races and both sexes fanning out from behind an electric car charger, like fingers around the palm of a hand. A picture of GM’s aspirations, the report details the strategic push toward smaller, electrified, fuel-efficient vehicles — a part of what it calls "customer-driven sustainability." Putting these fingers to the wind, so to speak, the company has set out to have 500,000 vehicles on the road "with some form of electrification" by 2017, the report states.

Motivations for such a goal are spelled out in the 10-K. Its section on risk factors states: "Volatile oil prices in recent years have tended to cause a shift in consumer demand towards smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles, which provide lower profit margins. Any increases in the price of oil in the U.S. or in our other markets or any sustained shortage of oil ... could weaken the demand for our higher margin fullsize pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles."

That trend is helping to drive change within the company. About 70 percent of GM’s brands ("nameplates" in car lingo) are being refurbished in 2012-13, as oil prices, consumer trends and regulation all make clean tech more attractive. "We need to change as customer preferences change," Tulauskas said.

GM has recently identified another motivator: Tesla Motors entrepreneur Elon Musk’s upstart electric car company, according to Steve Girsky, GM vice chairman, who was interviewed at Bloomberg headquarters last week .

Girsky’s comments deflate one conclusion of the sustainability report, that “GM received more clean-energy patents than any other organization during 2011 and 2012.” The number of patents doesn't guarantee success, he said. “The definition of success at R&D used to be how many patents have you generated?” Girsky said. “Well, we have a new definition of success: How much of your stuff actually goes into the car?”

GM says it plans to issue its next sustainability report "during the second quarter of 2014 to align more closely with the release of our annual financial results," according to last week’s release. Bringing together traditional and nontraditional, mandatory and voluntary disclosures can only add clarity and bring sustainability issues more prominently to investors’ attention.

Sustainability reporting in general is heading for a collision with typical corporate disclosures — proxy statements, 10-Ks, annual reports. It’s happening much more slowly than a highway collision but much faster than, say, two spiral galaxies gradually slamming into each other.

American Electric Power, Clorox, Dow Chemical, Eaton, Ingersoll Rand, Pfizer and Southwest Airlines are all examples of U.S. companies that fully integrate their financial and sustainability reports. So-called integrated reporting is “a concise communication about how an organization’s strategy, governance, performance and prospects lead to the creation of value over the short, medium and long term,” according to the International Integrated Reporting Council .

There are limits to blending sustainability and financial disclosures, apparently. Except in a brief discussion of international income tax obligations, the GM 10-K bears no mention of the word "sustainability."

Analysis and commentary on The Grid are the views of the author and don't necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg News.

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